Winner of the Booker Prize 2020
Shortlisted for the National Book Award for Fiction 2020
A BBC Two Between the Covers 2021 Book Choice
'We were bowled over by this first novel, which creates an amazingly intimate, compassionate, gripping portrait of addiction, courage and love.' The judges of the Booker Prize
'Douglas Stuart has written a first novel of rare and lasting beauty.' - Observer
It is 1981. Glasgow is dying and good families must grift to survive. Agnes Bain has always expected more from life. She dreams of greater things: a house with its own front door and a life bought and paid for outright (like her perfect, but false, teeth). But Agnes is abandoned by her philandering husband, and soon she and her three children find themselves trapped in a decimated mining town. As she descends deeper into drink, the children try their best to save her, yet one by one they must abandon her to save themselves. It is her son Shuggie who holds out hope the longest.
Shuggie is different. Fastidious and fussy, he shares his mother’s sense of snobbish propriety. The miners' children pick on him and adults condemn him as no’ right. But Shuggie believes that if he tries his hardest, he can be normal like the other boys and help his mother escape this hopeless place.
Douglas Stuart's Shuggie Bain lays bare the ruthlessness of poverty, the limits of love, and the hollowness of pride. A counterpart to the privileged Thatcher-era London of Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line of Beauty, it also recalls the work of Édouard Louis, Frank McCourt, and Hanya Yanagihara, a blistering debut by a brilliant writer with a powerful and important story to tell.
APPLE BOOKS REVIEW
From the author: “I didn’t set out to write a book that intersected with the zeitgeist or politically in any kind of way. I set out to write an incredibly intimate love story between a mother and a son, but you can’t set a story in 1980s’ Glasgow amongst the working class without it pulling in some very heavy themes—whether that’s uncaring governments or misogyny or homophobia, poverty or addiction. And those were just the headwinds that the characters were facing in order to love each other. I lived a very similar life to Shuggie. I grew up in the same sort of poverty, I lost my mother who suffered with addiction my entire life, I was queer, I was ostracised and isolated in all the same ways that Shuggie is. But I never felt like my own life was worth enough to be worthy of a memoir, and I also didn’t have a bravery for it. Plus, as I began to write the book, I felt like I could be braver if I included the perspective of lots of different characters, and I also thought I could tell a richer story. And honestly, if you’re going to write a working-class story, then one of the joys of doing it is enlisting a chorus of characters because they’re all going through the same social moment. And so very quickly when I sat down to write the book, the characters rushed in and my own personal experience or perspective was pushed out.
I wanted, through Shuggie Bain, to show a very complex character like Agnes. A mother and a friend, a foe and a lover, someone who’s spurned and someone who has hope and someone who’s defiant and glamorous and difficult and hurt. In a lot of ways, writing Shuggie Bain was a lesson in empathy for me, because as a child of trauma, when you go through all those things, you know what it feels like and what it tastes like, but writing the book forced me to go back and think about why people do things. Why would a mother with everything to live for and three beautiful children choose alcoholism? Conjuring these characters forced me to look at things in my own life and try to understand it from that person’s perspective. There’s a humanity to the novel. I wanted to capture that Glaswegian spirit, where very uncomfortable things can exist side by side. There can be enormous violence but within it there’s really heartbreaking tenderness, and then there can be these moments of exquisite sadness that are incredibly funny. Ultimately, the book is just life. I didn’t think that I was necessarily setting out to write a book that was showing anything in a good or a bad light. I was just showing life.”
Stuart's harrowing debut follows a family ravaged by addiction in Glasgow during the Thatcher era. Agnes Bain yearns to move Shug, her taxi-driving, "selfish animal" of a second husband, and three children out of the tiny apartment they share with her parents in Glasgow in 1981. Shug secures them a council flat, but when they arrive he leaves them in a flurry of violence, blaming Agnes's drinking. While Agnes's daughter, Catherine, escapes the misery of Agnes's alcoholism and the family's extreme poverty by finding a husband, and her older son, Leek, retreats into making art, Hugh (nicknamed "Shuggie" after his absent father) assumes responsibility for Agnes's safety and happiness. As the years pass, Shuggie suffers cruelty over his effeminate personality and endures sexual violence. He eventually accepts that he's gay; meanwhile, Agnes finds some hope by entering A.A., landing a job, and dating another taxi driver named Eugene, but she later backslides. As Shuggie and his mother attempt to improve their lives, they are bound not just by one another but also to the U.K.'s dire economic conditions. While the languid pace could have benefited from condensing, there are flashes of deep feeling that cut through the darkness. This bleak if overlong book will resonate with readers.
The best book I’ve read in years. Douglas Stuart please hurry and write another book. One amazing read. ❤️
I enjoyed reading this book and I felt quite saddened by the awful life that resulted from addiction to alcohol!
It was definitely an eye opener for me.
Sometimes comforting but, always the shadows are there!
Raw, immersive, gripping and emotional
Although this novel is sad overall, the thread of humanity and love that is so deeply threaded through it fills the reader with a sense of hope and even redemption for the real protagonist who is Agnes rather than Shuggie Bain.
A true sense of place is artfully drawn through the superbly detailed viewpoints of the authentic characters that inhabit this narrative.
This is truly a fine first novel and a deserving recipient of the 2020 Booker Prize. I’d happily read whatever Douglas Stuart writes next. If he succeeds in bringing even half of the charm, humour and authenticity of these characters to any future inhabitants of his novels, they will be well worth a read.
I hope someone sees the value of bringing Shuggie Bain to our screens - this recent history of inner city Scottish life during and post Thatcher is one that isn’t often shown and deserves to be understood by a larger audience. To show it from such a close family perspective gives power and person to this dark period.
A solid, well deserved 5 star rating for this stunning debut.